At lunch the other day, I walked in on my kids talking about their views on the ever-present topic of the danger of “bad guys” and the “stranger danger” rules that my daughter had learned in school. “If a bad guy comes, I will rip off his mask,” Zane said with a snarl.
“Zane….bad guys don’t always wear masks,” Mia retorted with an eye roll….”If I see a bad guy, I will punch and kick and hit him. And if a bad guy grabs me, I will yell FIRE so that everyone will look”. Since she had been to school already, she knew a few practical rules that her teacher had taught her about “stranger danger”…and though these rules can be helpful in a tight spot, they don’t always encapsulate the entire story.
I challenged them with a soft bit of truth in the form of thought-provoking questions…”Did you know a bad guy can look just like me? There can be people who look nice but are really trying to hurt you. Do you think you would be able to tell if someone was a bad guy?”
My kids returned my lesson with blank stares. So I continued, “I will pretend to be a bad guy and you show me what you would do if I was trying to get you to come with me,” I started with my 6 year-old daughter with the intention of her being an example to my 4 year-old son. I began in a calm, comforting voice, “Well, hi little girl. I’ve been passing out candy to all the kids at the park but I seem to have run out. Would you mind coming over to my car with me so I can get you some too?….”
And before I could continue, she shouted in her meanest, toughest voice, “No. I won’t go with you!!” She usually errs on the side of complete mistrust of anyone she doesn’t know. She has always been intimidated by new people and cautious of new situations. But her leery outlook often inhibits her socialization. So, I turned to my son, who had been listening to everything we said, “Oh, you are such a cute little boy. I have some ice cream. Would you like some ice cream?”
He nodded, “My mom lets me have ice cream.”
I continued, “Well, I left it over there. Would you like to come with me?” And with a naive grin he nodded sweetly and my little game became a shocking truth. My sons friendly, loving spirit is a detriment to his safety. It’s a characteristic I don’t necessarily long for him to overcome entirely, but I do want him to be safe. So, how do I teach my kids to be kind without being naive? How do I teach my kids to enjoy meeting new people and to allow new people into their lives without terrifying them into mistrusting everyone? How can my kids know what to do if they get separated from me without them being overly unnerved by being lost?
Part of the answer to these questions is that we are always to trust God. We can’t control every situation that our children encounter. I send my daughter to school and pray that she is safe. I pray that the regulations that the school has set up will protect her. I pray that she and her teachers will make wise choices and I pray that those who I am trusting for her care will not take advantage of her. And I occasionally leave my son with babysitters. I pray those who watch over him will know his impulsivity and keep him from hurting himself or wandering off when he makes rash, dangerous choices. My own care is faulty. My own instincts are imperfect. I lose sight of him at the park, I become wrapped up in a book while I’m watching him play in the front yard. And just this last week, I had to quickly leave my children with a nurse I had never met in order to get an unexpected x-ray. As parents we have to leave a lot to God’s perfect sovereignty and that often is the most terrifying part of this equation.
But the other side of these questions is our own responsibility and that is where much of the confusion lies. In our attempt to be conscientious, the scale becomes weighted in the direction of worry and fears. We try to remove all instances of danger by keeping them close and creating unnecessary isolation. Or we create a mantra of “God is in control” and we lose sight of the job we’ve been given. It is a huge responsibility to guard a child’s safety but it doesn’t have to be frightening to you or the child. It’s not always as simplistic or straightforward as we would like to make it but it also doesn’t have to be so complicated either. I am certainly not an expert on child safety…but over the last week I have been observing, gathering information, and asking questions, so that I could break the confusion in my mind over the dichotomy between avoiding strangers and building relationships. Here’s what I came up with…
When discussing the concept of “stranger danger”, don’t give kids too many rules. A small list of general rules is better than a huge list of specifics. If they know that it is generally the best idea to ask a parent first before taking anything from someone else…if they generally know it’s not safe to go into someone else’s house without permission…if they generally know it is only ok to talk to a stranger when a parent is close by…then you don’t have to fill in the blanks with every possible scenario that may arise. As in so many other areas of life, thinking skills are much more important than rote memorization of rules.
Talk about people that they can trust. Kids shouldn’t fear all strangers…on occasion, that can be as dangerous as thinking everyone is a friend. Firemen, policemen, sales clerks, and neighbors can be a huge help to a kid in trouble, but many kids feel paralyzed with fear because of too much emphasis on “stranger danger”. While this particular point could become bogged down with a long list of “what-ifs”…the truth is, a stranger in public is often safer than someone they know in private.
Give them opportunity for practice. Kids don’t always have the best sense in dangerous situations but if they are given a chance to practice making choices for themselves they will know what to do when a crisis actually arises. If you shelter and guard your child at all times they will not know what to do when they are put in a position to choose for themselves. They can’t sense danger as well if they have never been exposed to what danger can look like. And, on the flip-side, if you guard them too closely, they will have difficulty knowing when they can actually build a relationship. It may be helpful to take cookies to a neighbor, or to strike up a conversation with someone in line at the grocery store and then have a discussion later about why that particular situation was okay and what scenarios would not be okay. “It was okay to take cookies to the neighbor because we have talked to her a few times in our yard and Mommy was with you. It would not be okay to go over to her house if I was not with you, even if she invited you. Maybe when we have time to get to know her better we can go over together.”
Don’t think you’ve covered it if you talk about it once. I showed my son how to call me or my husband in an emergency. After we had gone over it a few times, I expected him to have it…but he didn’t. Not because he wasn’t listening, but because it takes repetition and application to learn something, even for adults.
Don’t overdo it. Some parents give their children too much information to deal with. They can’t comprehend adult situations and they shouldn’t have to in order to stay safe. But you can also “under-do” it too by thinking that it is too much to even mention the possibility of someone hurting them. Then as a child approaches the age to understand, it is helpful to open the lines of communication about difficult choices and to present more drastic applications.
Be your child’s advocate. If you are uncomfortable with the way a stranger is talking to your daughter, speak up. She will learn from your assertiveness. She can learn from your instincts. Your fear about what people will think of you could be a clear avenue for your child to be taken advantage of.
Create an environment of openness. A child shouldn’t feel afraid to speak up. There shouldn’t be a broad stroke of shame covering talk about your body. There are times and places to be frank, and there are times and places to be private…your child should know the difference. Privacy should look completely different from shame. And wrong choices don’t always need to be punished. Kids don’t have the same reasoning as we do and it’s unfair to punish them for something that they were ignorant of. Sometimes a grace filled discussion is enough to replace negative thoughts or actions with positive on)es and provide afluid line for children to express their worries, opinions and concerns in the future.
And so, being cautious about strangers does not have to equal isolation and rude behavior. Galatians 5:14 says we should “love others as you love yourself” (The Message)…strangers are people too, so we are called to love them. But we don’t have to be ignorant either. Children have a special place in the kingdom and we are to protect and guide them. We are actually instructed to follow their example of faith. And anyone who causes them harm faces the wrath of God. (Matthew 18:3-6).